First Amendment of the US Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
At its most fundamental, speech is the act of an individual human pushing air through elastic bits of meat, to put ideas into the mind of one or more other individuals. It might be easy to conclude that, like the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of speech is primarily of benefit to the individual citizen. And the security of living in a nation where the government has a history of protecting the right of an individual to speak freely cannot be overstated.
But I think that protecting the individual citizen’s right to speak freely goes far beyond benefitting that individual, and even beyond the aggregation of all the happiness that all the freely-speaking citizens have enjoyed over time. I believe that freedom of speech has generated benefits for our nation, and for many people of the Earrth, by fostering a mindset and a society unique in the history of our planet.
A society in which everyone has the right to speak is a society in which some interesting things are possible. We all have the space to risk saying something that might sound silly or ridiculous or unheard-of. Someone with lowly status may have a good idea and someone of high status can have a bad idea. Ideas can be expanded or cast aside. The results of the 240 years (and counting) of this experiment in protecting the freedom to express any and all ideas has been like rocket fuel for innovations in the sciences, technology, medicine, music, art, fashion, drama (mostly film & video) and economic activity that has made richer the world a richer and more enjoyable place for many people over time.
I would also argue that the downsides of people’s speech are actually reduced by all people being able to speak freely. As a kid, I learned the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I grew up to know that people speaking nasty things about me could only speak, they could not bring the weight of government down on me just because I think in a way that the majority does not (never believing in Santa or God, listening to Elvis Costello whie my classmates listened to Eddy Money).
One of the saddest trends I have noticed in recent years is the idea that freedom of speech is limited to the individual being protected from government acting to restrict speech, but that it’s fine for a number of people who disagree with the speech of individuals or groups to join together to inflict some DIY “consequences” on the disfavored speaker(s). Of course we all probably remember from grade school that it’s easier to shut someone’s mouth with a sucker punch than to come up with an argument that will convince someone to abandon an idea. This bullying mentality is one of the bad ideas I hope will sink like a stone as my fellow Americans continue to generate many, many ideas that will do good in the lives of people all over the world for many centuries to come.